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From the Rabbi

From the Rabbi - April 2010 PDF Print E-mail
Dear Friends:                                          

In our community, there are a few corrosive problems.  The future of the Memorial Coliseum is one such issue.   For six years, we have debated the use and viability of that structure.  Some of us are convinced that the building has become an eyesore of no more utility and that it should be razed.  Others of equal conviction and conscience are persuaded that the Coliseum must be preserved and that a new function can be found.

Of a similar level of concern is the decision about the Las Brisas plant.  Some argue that there is a serious risk of dangerous air pollution, while others emphasize the promise of economic development.  There is value and legitimacy to the arguments of the advocates of both points of view, as there is in the matter of the Coliseum.

At some point, probably in the relatively near future, a final decision will be made in each of these concerns.  Law suits will be filed and decided.  Win or lose, we shall move forward.  Some of us will be pleased, others disappointed, but (except for those who are convinced that every issue is governed by an insidious, back-room conspiracy) we should ultimately be impressed that all the people had a full opportunity to be heard and that a democratic process prevailed.

Winston Churchill once said that “democracy is the least efficient system, but still the most effective.”  The questions that trouble us are being dealt with through an open and democratic process.  One controversy, however, is of a longer-term nature and threatens to subvert and even destroy the very process that has made America great – and has made America special haven for Jews and other minorities.  I refer specifically to the rejection on March 11 of the inclusion of the subject of church-state separation in the proposed high school social studies curricular standards by the State Board of Education.   Religious conservatives on the SBOE (a majority of its members) reject the idea of separation as unconstitutional and contrary to the wishes of the Founding Fathers.  This rejection represents, according to most scholars, minorities, and nearly all Jews – and certainly my own reading of the American past – an irresponsible rewriting and misrepresentation of American history and a stunning triumph of political ideology over education and accuracy.  Let me explain.

Their first contention is that the words “church-state separation” are not found in the U.S. Constitution and, therefore, do not and should not exist.  What the opponents say is true; these exact words are not in the document.   But the Constitution is not the only source of American legal precedent.  It is likely that Thomas Jefferson first uttered the words in 1803, based largely on warnings in James Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance” to the Virginia legislature in 1785 – two years before the Constitution was written.  There have been over two hundred years of American legal precedents affirming this idea.  It is as real and as legitimate as other actions that have been taken but are not explicitly written in the Constitution, such as the right to expand the frontiers of the nation.  (Would they propose giving the Louisiana Territory back to France?  Jefferson’s purchase was illegal according to their standards.)

In addition, the Constitution’s First Amendment contains “the establishment clause,” which is clear in its desire to avoid an entanglement of religion and government.  The Founders of this nation understood from European experience the negative consequences of a state-sponsored religion and determined to avoid those dangers by forbidding a repetition of such a relationship.  (Again, read Madison.)  The will of the Founding Fathers is clear, and it is exactly the opposite of what the SBOE majority wants to enact.  The doctrine of separation is hardly the “half-truth” that one of its SBOE opponents called it.  But then he not only questions the doctrine of separation but really does not want it at all.  It impedes a longer-term ambition and needs to be eliminated if the views of the religious and conservative clique are to triumph.

We need to appreciate that what happened last month at the SBOE was a minor skirmish in a patient effort by fundamentalist Christians to change the basic policies, practices and identity of this country.  Make no mistake.  A calculated, deliberate culture war is taking place in our society, and the ultimate goal is to reverse the doctrine of church-state separation, undo court decisions that have derived from it and replace our present system with one that is based on fundamentalist Protestantism.  The SBOE vote is today echoed in nearly half the states of the Union with the objective or re-establishing official prayer in the public schools, then passing government legislation favorable to and funding of certain religious groups and, eventually, declaring the U.S. to be a Christian nation in which everyone else is a second-class citizen.  Advocates of this position have already insinuated an elective course on the Bible, taught by one of their supporters and espousing their ideas, in the CCISD.

It remains to be seen whether Jews and others who would find themselves disadvantaged under such an altered American identity will defend their citizenship rights or acquiesce to second-class status.  You and I have a basic choice: to be pro-active and protect our prerogatives or to disappear.  This is neither hyperbole nor alarmism, but reality.  Please consider joining the Texas Freedom Network or the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.  And write letters to your state representatives and senators – lots of letters.  You can make a difference.

Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi

From the Rabbi - March 2010 PDF Print E-mail
Dear Friends:

There is a Jewish saying: “Even the poorest person in Israel is obligated to give alms, if only one penny [as there is always someone poorer than he/she].”

I was reminded of that saying the other evening as I sat at the opening meeting when the Combined Jewish Appeal offers each of us an annual opportunity to do the mitzvah of tzedakah.  I was reminded of this saying because I learned the shocking statistic that only roughly half of Corpus Christi’s Jews make any contribution to the CJA drive.  That means, of course, that approximately half of our residents do not fulfill the basic obligation of a Jew to give charity through the CJA.

Why is this important?  Let me recall a few of the points made by Jim Lodge, our guest speaker.

    In 2008, our contributions helped feed 220,000 needy Jews in the former Soviet Union.  This year, because of declining contributions (The economy is having its inevitable impact.), roughly 60,000 of these people have had to be dropped from the rolls.  This is the equivalent of every Jew in either Dallas or Houston not having even one decent meal a day.  This is an enormous amount of new suffering.

    You may remember that Israel brought a large number of Ethiopian Jews to Israel a couple of decades ago.  Their integration into Israeli society has moved forward, but there is still a long way to go.  And now it appears that there are an additional 8,000 Jewish refugees near Addis Ababa who will need to be airlifted, housed, fed and taught.  We are proud that this movement represents the only time in history that a black population was moved from one country to another for a purpose other than enslavement.  But we can only sustain that pride if we now take the necessary step of making sure that these people are offered the same privileges as other Israeli citizens and move up the economic and social ladder like everyone else.

    Jim also told us about the Jews in South America (100,000 in Argentina, alone) who face economic problems and sometimes serious anti-Semitism.

What’s the point?  Roughly half of your CJA contribution goes to alleviate these dire conditions.  You can make a difference – a real difference.  The other half stays right here in Corpus Christi.

So, here’s the deal.  If a volunteer solicitor calls you for a pledge, make one.  Make a pledge that is as generous as you can afford; every dollar makes a difference.  If no one calls you, unless your index finger is broken, pick up the phone and call the CJA at 855-6239 and ask them to help you perform a mitzvah.  If you can commit a dollar-a-month (Everyone can do at least this much.) or five or ten, you will have done something special; you will have fulfilled a sacred obligation.    And more is always welcome!

If you don’t step forward, I’m going to ask the CJA for a list of members of CBI who have met their Jewish duty and those who have not.   I won’t get the amounts, but I’ll know who’s who.  Sometime in the Spring, those who have not given can expect a personal phone call from me.  I don’t think you want to get this call, so do what is right now and help Jews around the world and in Corpus Christi to whose needs you can respond.

When you sit down to your next meal, remember Jews who do not even have that.  You’ll feel gratified knowing that you were part of the solution to their desperation.  Thanks in advance for your participation in our communal mitzvah.
                                Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi

From the Rabbi - February 2010 PDF Print E-mail
Dear Friends,

For the last two weeks of January and from now on until Simchat Torah in October, we’re reading Torah passages completely suffused by the presence of Moses.  He is such a ubiquitous figure that the Pentateuch is often called “Torat Moshe,” the Torah of Moses.  And that is because the name “Moses” appears in the text almost as often as the name of the deity!

Let me share two ideas about Moses and his popularity.

First, you might note the difference between God and Moses.  God is the giver of the Torah; Moses is the receiver.  Neither one is sufficient without the other, much in the same way that the quarterback is irrelevant unless there is a wide receiver somewhere down the field to catch his pass during the Super Bowl.  Early midrashic texts (about 1500 or more years ago) tell us that God had the Torah in heaven long before the creation of the world, but that the Torah without people to act on it was, in reality, a dead letter.  Nothing could happen with Torah, it could have no effect, until some people on earth received it and took it seriously.  Moses and the Israelites who gathered at Sinai with him – and all of their successors, which means us – became the doers of Torah, the catalyst that made the high ideals embodied in the books come to life.

Moses, then, becomes the symbol for all of us who proudly proclaim that we are “the people of the book.”  (By the way, that expression first was used in the Koran, where Jews are called “ul hakitab.”  Sometimes it helps to read what others have written about us.  Maybe they are not always wrong.)  Our mission, our task on earth, is to make the values of Torah real in the society in which we live.  Like Moses who had to transmit the values of the new revelation to his people, our purpose as modern Jews is no different: we are the people who are commanded by God to make Torah values come into reality in our world.  That makes Moses a pretty important and persistent figure; he represents what we ourselves are supposed to do with our lives.

A second thought – I have been reading Bruce Feiler’s book about Moses.  It is called “America’s Prophet,” and it is a book well worth reading.  Bruce traces how the idea and image of Moses has persisted in American history, motivating all sorts of different people in different eras and ages to thoughts and actions that produced freedom.  From the words of the New England Pilgrims to George Washington to the Civil War (both sides!) to Martin Luther King, Jr., Moses has been summoned to speak for the oppressed and persecuted and to encourage those who would alleviate their burdens.  In a telling passage, the author points out that Moses was called forward more frequently in Civil War rhetoric than even Jesus; he was that important.   Bruce’s point is that no other figure in the mythology of America has been so constant and so important as Moses, and that alone should make us want to hear, over and over, the story of this legendary Jewish leader.

You will enjoy and learn from reading Bruce’s book.  Even more, you will enjoy and learn from reading Moses’ book.  Or better yet, try both.  Like chicken soup, it won’t hurt you, and it might just make a difference in your life.



      Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi


From the Rabbi - January 2010 PDF Print E-mail
Dear Friends:

As many of you know, I teach in the History Department at TAMUCC as an adjunct faculty member.  The University has a small Philosophy Department, but offers only one course in the Philosophy of Religion.  There is no Department of Religion, but my Ph.D. is in history, so I have been included there.  One of the courses that I very much enjoy teaching is called “The History of Religion in America,” a course that is taken mainly by advanced students in the History Department.

I am beginning to prepare for this course, which will be offered again in the Fall semester of 2010, and that has led me to spend some time reading and thinking about fundamentalism, both in Judaism and Christianity.   Anyone who knows me, even a little, recognizes that I am far from being a fundamentalist, which means that understanding this kind of religious perspective is a stretch for me.  But, of course, one of the things that I treasure in my teaching is the opportunity to confront new ideas and wrestle with them.

Fundamentalism first came on the scene in American religion in the 1920s when a group of Protestants published a series of pamphlets in which they described the “fundamentals” of what a Christian was supposed to believe.  Since that time, however, it has come to mean a resistance to change, a dogged adherence to what the believer thinks are the unalterable basic tenets of the religion.  Most fundamentalists, however, go beyond simple belief; they resist any change whatsoever.  If grandpa davened by rocking from right to left, then that’s the way it has to be, forever and ever.  If we only use prune filling for hamentaschen or put raisins in the noodle kugel or take the left crown off the Torah before the right one – God forbid we should change even one iota!

In Jewish life, this kind of fundamentalism stems from the nineteenth century when a Rabbi in Hungary, Mordecai Schreiber (also known as The Hatam Sofer) announced that any change or innovation is forbidden by the Torah.  Since that time, Orthodox Judaism has become less flexible than it was before, even to the point of insisting that the adherents to various Hasidic sects wear exactly the same type of clothing that their predecessors wore two hundred years ago.

A religious stance like this, it seems to me, completely misses both historical truth and religious purpose.

First, historical truth.  When the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, the new leaders of the Jewish community were not priests, but rabbis.  This was a major change.  Sacrifice was no longer of animals and other agricultural products, but prayer and study and tzedakah.  The Temple was replaced by a synagogue; one change followed another all the way through the Middle Ages and early modern period.  Mordecai Schreiber inveighed against innovation precisely because Jews continued to adjust the practice of their religion to modern times.  We kept to the basics, but changed the implementation, and we continue to do so.

Second, religious purpose.  Kashrut is important, but it is a means to a greater end.  When Saul of Tarsus (aka Paul) wrote to the emerging church in Rome (Romans 14:17), he said what Jews were also thinking: “For the kingdom of God does not mean food and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the spirit of God.”  Some people get so hung up on the minutiae that they forget the purposes for which religions exist.  Missing the forest for the trees is a common hallmark of fundamentalism.

In these dark days of winter, perhaps the lights of Hanukkah will continue to remind us to shine a little light on our own religious commitments and focus the beam squarely on what is really important and not on the details or transient elements.  Fundamentalism may be the choice of some people, but it’s not good for the Jews.


Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi

From the Rabbi - December 2009 PDF Print E-mail

Dear Friends:

A British, Anglican clergyman named John Andrew Holmes, who lived about a century ago, once wrote the following quip:  “Never tell a young person that something cannot be done.  God may have been waiting for centuries for somebody ignorant enough of the impossible to do that very thing.”

I suppose Food Fest is like that quote.  After all, any objective observer might say “How could a congregation of only 210 or so families ever dream of pulling off such an enterprise?”  The word “dream” is the key.  Theodor Herzl once wrote that “if you want something enough, it is no dream.”  A determined bunch of people can do remarkable things.

Or, think of Bar and Bat Mitzvah youngsters.  More often than not, non-Jewish parents come up to me after a service and ask “How did you ever get a thirteen year-old to so something like that?”  “It’s easy,” I reply.  “We don’t ask.  We simply expect them to do it, and, wonderfully, they rise to the occasion.”  Individuals are capable of incredible achievements, even if they don’t believe they can do so.

December is a great time to think about what we can do, even when we cannot see that there is a chance of succeeding.  It’s dark outside, and our vision can be obscured.  But our vision can also be enhanced if we turn our thoughts and images inward and look into ourselves.  It is amazing how much positive work we can visualize if we stop looking at the dark outside and start looking at the shining light that is within each of us.

You don’t have to be a naive young man or woman to think creative, positive new thoughts.  All you have to do is escape from the December doldrums of darkness and despair and think how much you can do, if only you will take a little risk and try.  Who knows?  God may be waiting just for you.

            Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi

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